For Cindy, For Ourselves: Healing in the context of colonial gender violence

Today is April 2nd, 2015 and across these lands, gatherings will be held for Cindy Gladue.

Cindy Gladue was an Indigenous woman, mother, and sex worker. The man charged in her murder was recently acquitted after a dehumanizing trial involving the showcasing of Gladue’s intimate wounds as evidence.  Just today, it was announced that the Alberta Crown has launched an appeal. For those of you unfamiliar with the case, I suggest articles by Sarah Hunt and my dear friend Naomi.

In helping to organize the Saskatoon event and communicating with organizers across the country, I am reminded that the women and two spirits organizing these actions are the same women who organize everything in our communities. The women who carry the burdens of so many and often find ourselves exhausted. The ones who are on the frontlines, who never step back from “the work” because the work is our lives and the lives of those we love.

During the past weeks, I’ve walked around feeling like I am a bubble made of delicately blown glass, ready to burst into pieces. One version of a common refrain I hear from other women and two spirits is “I am very sensitive to this stuff”. “This stuff” being the extreme colonial gender violence responsible for Cindy’s murder. “This stuff” being the systematic, deliberate devaluation and dehumanization of Indigenous women responsible for Barton’s acquittal. I think that there is no shame in feeling too much in response to “this stuff”, but perhaps that the shame belongs to those who feel too little, or to those who encourage us to stop feeling so much.

How do we heal from colonial gender violence? How do we heal from the violence when it is still ongoing? How do we heal from something that has never left us? How do we heal when we are constantly being retraumatized, even by those who “mean well”?

One of the things I find myself particularly sensitive to recently are projects that aim to deconstruct gendered colonial violence by naming and “reclaiming” slurs. While I think there are certain cases where this works well (#NotYourMascot), most times, I think that men sharing articles proclaiming “We Are More Than (insert violent gender slur here)” only serves to reproduce this discourse.

Judith Butler writes of the violence of derealization, noting that if “violence is done against those who are unreal, then, from the perspective of violence, it fails to injure or negate those lives since those lives are already negated.” Violence against the unreal, the less real, the inhuman, is normative, and thus not considered violence at all. Physical violence is the embodied manifestation of what is “already happening in discourse.”

The same can be said of the media placing so much emphasis on the exact measurements of the wounds in Cindy’s body. Who do these words serve? Certainly not Indigenous women, or Cindy’s family, who do not need these measurements repeated to know first hand the reality of violence. This discourse serves only to desensitize the settler public to violence against Indigenous women while retraumatizing those of us directly impacted. Avoiding articles that do these things is one way I heal right now.

Even discourse around Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women are often hostile spaces for women, two spirits, and particularly, sex workers. Walking to a MMIW gathering a few months back, I ran into some young women who work in my neighbourhood, and invited them to the gathering for snacks and discussion. At the meeting, comments like “make sure you know where your daughters are”, “teach your daughters to dress with respect for themselves”, “if you know a woman who is working the street, call the police and they will help her” were thrown around and I felt sick, and as the moderator of this panel, did the best I could to challenge these statements. Our movements for MMIWG2S are nothing if they are violent toward sex workers and view certain Indigenous women’s lives as more mournable than others. This is part of the impetus for the #MMIWG2S hashtag, which points at the erasure of violence toward girls and two spirits.

On the other side of the fence, I had a conversation with a white canadian friend the other day and I was distressed by the communication boundaries between us. This friend is an intelligent, well-educated man, a bit older than me. He noticed I was tense and unhappy and wanted to make sure things were okay, a kind gesture that I wish people made with such sincerity more often.

I tried to explain the exhaustion of being the only Indigenous woman student in my classes, studying racist and sexist philosophers and watching it all go unchallenged unless I am the one to challenge it. I tried to explain the anger and sorrow that I bring into every class, knowing that my body is one marked as disposable, and being asked to put that aside in my analysis of the coursework at hand.

I watched him nod and squint, searching my face to understand, but the difference between us seemed to make it impossible for him. “At your age, I felt invincible. I was naive, I guess. But you know, you don’t have to live life feeling like you’re constantly pushing up against a wall. You seem so angry.”

What could I say in response to this? How can I allow myself to be vulnerable (and therefore open to both potential healing and potential violence) with someone who cannot see the blood soaking the soil beneath his feet?

I just smiled, knowing that it is precisely in “pushing up against the wall” that I make space for myself as Indigenous in a colonial world. Being two-spirit and a native woman means that I exist as transgression of borders, and the warm breath that fills my body is material evidence that the canadian colonial project has failed, oh, as hard as it tries to destroy me. Resistance forms the bonds in my DNA strands. The rage and sorrow and discomfort I feel are not things I want to wish away. The rage and sorrow and discomfort are the logical and correct reaction to the violence that Indigenous women are faced with.

In that moment, I did give up a struggle: the struggle to make him understand something he’d never experienced (and in fact, something he as a settler benefits from not understanding) and suddenly, my vulnerability turned into a warm blanket wrapped around my shoulders.

Organizing around the Cindy Gladue case has taken on a distinct feeling, separate from other MMIWG2S events I’ve been a part of.

We do this work now for ourselves and for our sisters. The gatherings planned for today are not to raise “awareness”, to get media attention, or to spend endless energy convincing settlers that our lives are valuable. These gatherings are a chance for us to cry and scream and heal. They are a chance to be around others with whom we do not have to try to explain what we are feeling, because they already know that rage, that sorrow, that endless struggle so well. These gatherings are a chance for us to celebrate our strength and our resilience, even when that takes the form of endless tears. These gatherings are a chance for us to remember that our overwhelming emotions are not weakness, but the truly human response to outrageous injustice.

We do this work to embody the belief that the lives of Indigenous women, two spirits, and sex workers are mournable.

We do this work to heal our communities.

We do this work to heal ourselves.

We do this work for Cindy.

Artwork credit: Erin Marie Konsmo

7 thoughts on “For Cindy, For Ourselves: Healing in the context of colonial gender violence

  1. Thank you. Thank you for your work. Thank you for your words. As a settler, married to a First Nations man, with three children, I value this. I am holding space for you.

  2. Eloquently written and an important message that is sadly beyond the grasp of many. I am horrified at the court decision reached in this case and struggle to understand how a human being could be so utterly blind in failing to deliver justice. I hope more of us will be doing this work for Cindy, and all others like her who are marginalized and treated as less than they deserve.

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